Pilgrimage, sacred and profane

Sunday was a fine day, what our family used to call a “boaty day”: Clear deep blue skies, with a light breeze, temperatures warm but not hot, and that extra sparkle that makes even ordinary buildings and trees look magical.  The main ingredient in a boaty day, though, is wonder.

Unfortunately Sarie and Bob were busy, but I went out by myself. My main thought was to get a good view of the mountains. I have a hobby of finding ways home that take me from east to west, facing the Alps. But to come home west, I had to first go east. So I headed to one of the busiest, most eastern spots in town: Piazza Castello.

On the way, I ran into a bike parade.  Families and singles were gathering near Piazza Solferino to bike together through town, no doubt to publicize alternative transportation.  New people were heading from every direction, and every few seconds a couple more riders would ring their bells as they joined the parade.  I saw a friend of mine, in a chartreuse hat and riding a yellow folding bike, join the parade.  She was too far away to hear me call, though, so I walked on.

When I got to Piazza Castello, there was a children’s festival going on. Dozens of white tents with activities crowded the piazza, and young volunteers dressed in white coats with clown motifs–a striped sleeve here, brightly-colored shoes or hose there–wove through the crowd.  Once I got past the mass of tents, I headed towards La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo.  I’d noticed a while back that although this church has no facade to call attention to it, people are always going in and out.

Inside, there was a long vestibule with a pietà at one end and a door at the other.  It was not your typical Italian church entrance.  But immediately the splendid sanctuary drew me inward. Enormous, ornate, and octagonal, it immediately drew the eye straight up to a cupola far above.  I took a seat towards the back and slowly accustomed myself to the regal atmosphere of a Baroque interior.

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La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo has a plain facade outside and a startlingly spacious inside, topped with a dramatic cupola

Images from Wikipedia Commons

My intention had simply been to have a look around, to see where the interior took my thoughts, perhaps to pray.  I find the interior of an Italian church to be an easy place to concentrate on prayer, even if I can’t participate in the mass.  But after I had been sitting in the church for a few minutes, I noticed that there was a woman giving a tour.  My interest was piqued even though I couldn’t hear clearly what she was saying, so when she finished and she started another tour for a Frenchman, speaking slowly in Italian, I asked if I could join them.

She started the tour with the history of the church and why it was named for San Lorenzo.  A former Savoy ruler had won a battle on S. Lorenzo’s feast day and promised to build a church in his honor.  After the war, however, he didn’t have enough money for major projects, so he consecrated an existing church (now the long vestibule) to the saint. It wasn’t until the next generation the Theatine priest Guarino Guarini built the present-day church. The resulting style was so distinct that it’s now called Guarini Baroque.

The Theatine order specialized in math and science, so Guarini filled his creation with 17th-century architectural wonders and symbolism.  Suffice it to say that nothing in this riot of trompe d’oeuil architecture is random. The cupola draws the eyes heavenward, geometrical shapes symbolize Biblical numbers, a chapel of the Nativity faces one of the Crucifixion, and even the colors of the materials are significant. But there are two effects in particular that I like. One is a skylight above the altar, surrounded by sculpted white clouds and golden putti interspersed with golden rays. The other is a series of curved paintings hidden in dark niches above the four chapels.  On two days each year, from 9:00-9:30 and then again from 12:00-12:30 , the sun hits portholes above these chapels and illuminates the paintings inside (on the left side first, and then on the right).  The next such day will be September 21.  If at all possible, I plan to go!

It was evident to me after a while that the docent wasn’t merely going through the motions, but really found the church inspiring and spiritually significant.  I sat down for a long while after the talk, looking at the entire space with new eyes.  I was glad I had taken the time for the tour.

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The Palazzo Madama is a Baroque palace in the front and a medieval castle in the rear.  The first photo shows the view from La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo

Images from Wikipedia Commons

Leaving the church, I walked across the piazza to the Palazzo Madama, a.k.a., the Queen Mother’s Palace.  The Palazzo Madama is a fascinating hodgepodge of a building styles at the very center of the city.  In fact, at its core is one of the original Roman city gates. There are at least two other stages of architecture built into the palace, including an medieval castle (in the back) and a Baroque façade (by another famous Torinese architect, Filippo Juvarra) added so that the Queen Mother could make a proper ceremonial appearance. Apparently medieval spiral staircases did not provide adequate drama for the later Savoys. Originally Juvarra’s design was to have replaced the old castle entirely, but since the new palace was never quite finished, today the palace looks like some kind of archeological exposition, with all its successive renovations exposed. In the interior courtyard, you can stand on a glass floor and survey the castle’s foundations and crypts. In one interior stairwell, you can see remnants of four or five phases of building, including the original Roman wall, on a color-coded map.

Knowing that the main staircase is open all day, I walked up to the second floor of the façade and stood by the front window, the one where the Queen Mother would have made her appearances. There were only a couple of people standing around, so I had one of the best views in town pretty much to myself. Directly in front of me was Via Garibaldi, the original Roman decumanus, or main east/west road. Now the main pedestrian thoroughfare in town, it runs straight from Piazza Castello towards the Alps like a textbook study in two-point perspective.  The street is lined on either side with elegant four-story buildings similar in style to those in Piazza Castello, each with stores on the ground floor.

Down below, the festivities were still going strong.  A rock band was playing a children’s song (in Italian) in which each verse was punctuated by a squeaky toy.  Via Garibaldi was crowded with shoppers making their passaggi.  I really didn’t see how anyone could even move down there.  Above the crowds, a flock of pigeons would senselessly startle and fly from one side of the street to the other, and above the whole scene an escaped pink mylar balloon jerked ever higher to the right. “Squeak-squeak!  Squeak-squeak!” I looked towards the Alps and towards the setting sun, and felt satisfied.

This was my Torino, the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the profane.  This was what I had come to see.


Bits, snappy and not-so-snappy

I stood out on my kitchen balcony before 8 a.m. this morning, listening to swallows, which I could see circling above, and traffic, which I couldn’t see circling my block outside the courtyard. I had gone to hang out a towel and been charmed into staying. The sky was utterly clear, and the temperature was cold for late May (48/10 degrees).  I was (and am) wearing a pink wool sweater set as an homage to the two seasons between which the city is choosing.

Then I went inside and made a second caffè macchiato.  The sun is now slanting golden on my fake birch cabinets from IKEA. It looks warm despite the fakery.

I wonder, when I go outside our courtyard and cross C.so Matteotti, will I have a clear view of the mountains?

I’m alone. I am frequently alone now, and I’m coming to terms with it. Last night I sat down and taught myself the first of the Goldberg Variations, which I have loved for years. It’s not performable yet, but I practiced with interest for two hours. I also drew a quick sketch Virgin statuette from the Cloisters--twice, because the first time I botched the structure. The one below has problems as well (as pretty much any 15 minute sketch will), but I’m putting it in as an incentive to make myself practice.

Virgin. Sandstone, polychromy and gilding, France 1247-52, from the cathedral of Strasbourg (47.101.11) Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters.


Yesterday in Italian class I learned the congiuntivo imperfetto and the congiuntivo trapassato.  So now, if I could only remember how to conjugate even the most basic verbs in the present tense on the fly, I would be able to say the most complicated things in Italian–statements of possibility and emotion that occurred and continued in the past. I think you can make poetry with those!

On Tuesday I made a chicken broth (with the feet, of course) and yesterday I made a potato leek soup for Sarie and Alberto with some of it. We talked about film ideas and told viola jokes in two languages. Bob is in Vienna.

I’m continuing to read Psalms every morning, and often I sing traditional hymns. Sometimes I literally sing them in the closet.

I’m reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien again.  Of course I read them for the insight into how he wrote The Lord of the Rings, but what I really like about them is the inclusion of bits of side trivia, such as the following from a letter to his son Christopher:

“When fermentation was first managed, the beer was only in birch tubs and it foamed all over the place, and of course the heroes cam and lapped it up, and got mightily drunk.  Drunk was Ahti, drunk was Kauko, drunken was the ruddy rascal, with the ale of Osmo’s daughter-Kirby’s translation is funnier than the original.  It was the bullfinch who then suggested to Osmo’s daughter the notion of putting the stuff in oak casks with hoops of copper and storing it in a cellar.  Thus was ale at first created…best of rinks for prudent people; Women soon it brings to laughter, Men it warms into good humour, and but brings the fools to raving.  Sound sentiments. Poor old Finns, and their queer language, they look like being scuppered.*”

Italians traditionally don’t drink to drunkenness.  They consider that something that American tourists do, especially college students.  (In case you were wondering what their stereotypes of us were.)  But in this generation, things seem to be changing.  Sarie had to enter some data from an anonymous survey on various consumption habits for a school project.  Only two students whose data she entered had not gotten drunk. Some were as young as 14. My Italian teacher thinks this is an attitude imported from northern Europe. Of course it has been a problem in the US at least since I was a teen.

Some of the lines from Tolkien’s letters, such as the following, stand quite nicely by themselves:

It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!”

Which begs the question: Is this a snappy bit?

*The last line is in reference to the Finns’ tendency to be dominated by other countries.

A moment for music

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I haven’t taken photos of Sarie practicing in a long time, but I did last night. For years I had a habit of taking practice photos much the way some people take photos of their children every year next to their front door.  It’s her own thing, and very her.  She’s grown up with a violin in hand.

Lately life has made inroads into music, and she doesn’t practice as much as she used to.  But last night around 9 p.m., she did warm ups in front of the mirror (for position) and then started Sibelius third movement*, which invokes all things Nordic and mythological. Then she sight-read the first movement of the Prokofiev concerto. None of this has been assigned, and I think she’s playing only the first movement of Sibelius for her exit exam in late-June.  I don’t think she gets a great deal of  instruction these days, or has a lot of dedicated peers against whom to sharpen her skills. That’s one reason I’m glad she’s going to a three-week camp in the US this summer. She just got her chamber music assignments for the camp, and they look invigorating.

Her old friends from the US are posting their college choices on Facebook now. I’m pleasantly surprised at how many of her fellow students from the Manhattan School of Music Pre-college program are actually going to study music at the college level. A whole group of them are going to follow their favorite teacher Grigory Kalinovsky (the one with whom she’ll be studying this summer) to Indiana, alma mater of Joshua Bell.  I’m glad they didn’t all go the Ivy route, study business or medicine, and just use their music as a resumé enhancement. To be an excellent musician is a labor of love.

Sarie still has a year of high school left here in Italy, but she’s going to start the conservatory here at the college level anyway. She could have even done it this year, but we were awfully confused about whether she could graduate at the time we made the decision. In the end, this year seemed to be mostly a holding pattern, musically speaking. But she did perform a solo with an orchestra**, tour with her self-organized Baroque group Aurea Armonia, and sit first chair in the orchestra last Friday for a performance of Wagner, Prokofiev, and Rossini-and-Purcell-inspired Britten. She’s going to write her extended essay for the IB on Monteverdi and the development of Baroque music via opera, in Italian. And she’s playing her all-time favorite concerto, the Sibelius.

So, while it’s not what her former peers are doing, it’s interesting in its own way. I hope she will have many more opportunities in the future to live a life of music.

*I hope these Spotify links are useful, and I only wish they had the Hilary Hahn version of Sibelius, which has what I consider to be the high level of energy required for the third movement, and not so many slides as Mintz!

**A shaky video which loses the sound, but I’m grateful to have it!

A day trip to Florence


Last Friday Sarie and I went to Florence (Firenze in Italian) for the day. Or, more accurately, Sarie took a bus to the suburbs for a three-hour lesson with a visiting violin teacher and I went to Florence, for the art.  We each got the better end of the deal.

I used to go to the Uffizzi gallery there fairly frequently during the summer of 1984, when I was an art student in a studies abroad program. I’ve been back to the city twice since then on vacation, but now the museum pretty much requires a reservation* so I hadn’t revisited it.  And I’d not been to Florence since we moved.

When we arrived in the morning, I decided to walk around before my entry time and perhaps visit the church of S. Croce on the other side of the city center. While reviewing the map, I realized that I could easily get from one major monument to the other by following the main streets, so I put the map away and made myself at home.

Having quickly decided that the line at the church of S. Maria Novella (near the train station) was too long, I struck out for S. Croce by way of the Duomo. Approaching the Duomo from the northwest, you can see its lacy green, pink and white marble from far away, even though the street is crowded with tourists by early May. Once in the piazza, I found a spot that was slightly out-of-the-way but still afforded a full view, snapped my photo, and simply stood admiring the facade for about ten minutes.  It was the first time I’d taken it in at leisure, without trying to memorize it for fear of never seeing it again, or having to think about whether the person next to me was bored. There was a spring breeze and I began to be happy that I had made the trip.


From my hidden spot, I moved in closer, burrowing my way into the crowd, and took in the Ghiberti baptistry doors for a while.  I listened to talks about the doors in two languages (Spanish and French) and was surprised that I could understand most of each.  Perhaps this is because I already knew the sort of things they’d say, or perhaps the guides were really Italians who were speaking slowly, enabling me to separate out the words. I’ve had a favorite Ghiberti door panel (the one above) since high school, so it was nice to see it in person again.

Leaving the Duomo I wandered a bit, down some favorite narrow streets, skirting the Piazza della Signoria where the Uffizzi is, and walking on towards S. Croce.  I had to stand in line to enter the church, but having left time to wait, I relaxed and pulled out my George MacDonald book. Since most of the tourists around me were Russians, I wasn’t even distracted.

Once inside S. Croce, I was pleasantly surprised to recognize it from my college trip.  Here were the large tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, and the somewhat less-beloved Machiavelli.  (Later that day I saw a book entitled something like Machiavelli the Misunderstood.)  At the front of the basilica, along with scaffolding, were several lovely frescoed side chapels, including one each by Taddeo and Agnolo Gaddi. I particularly liked the fresco which included an approaching ship. Since artists of that period had only partly explored the rules of  perspective, the ship almost seems to be flying in from the heavens. After touring the chapels, I walked through the sacristy and then out the side door, where I found the Capella de’ Pazzi, a geometric jewel box of a chapel designed by Brunelleschi. It’s mostly smooth and empty inside, sparely decorated with terra cotta roundels, and separated from the courtyard outside by a mere curtain.

By the time I left the chapel, I needed to move on to the Uffizzi, but I wanted to see the church’s museum as well. So I tried something that seemed like what an Italian might do. I approached the guard, told her (in Italian) that I had a reservation for the Uffizzi, and asked whether it might be possible to come back to see the museum when I was finished.  And what do you know?  She agreed and signed the back of my ticket.

DSC_0205DSC_0213Fresco by Agnolo Gaddi (top), and the Pazzi Chapel (bottom, straight ahead)

Despite the reservation, I ended up standing in two lines for a total of thirty minutes to enter the Uffizzi. While in line I got started talking to a French woman who lived just on the other side of the Alps from Cuneo. She spoke bad Italian with a French accent and I spoke bad Italian with an American accent. We must have sounded quite funny!  But it was an interesting way to pass the time.

(I’ve just realized that none of the following links to paintings work, but you can follow the Uffizzi link above and search the paintings if you want to know more, or you can wait until I figure out how to fix them!)

Once inside, however, I was all business. I started by comparing the gold-leafed Madonnas of Cimabue to those of Duccio and Giotto to see if I noticed anything new, then stopped to gape for a while at the elegant Simone Martini Madonna shrinking uncomfortably from Gabriel’s words. I noted a surprisingly moving Deposition from the Cross by the relatively unknown Giottino, walked through the Botticelli room (beautiful, but too much the same), and listened to a guide telling the usual story that Verocchio never painted again after the apprentice Leonardo one-upped him with an angel in the Baptism of Christ.  (Taking a fresh look for myself, I decided that Leonardo had  probably only painted the angel on the left, as the one on the right has a few serious drawing problems. Yes, I’m opinionated.)

In one of the late 16th century rooms there was a fabulous Correggio Madonna which I had never noticed before, but I was so extremely tired by this time, and the rooms so stuffy, that  instead of staying to look any longer I walked in a trance to the café and ordered a caffè macchiato.  After sitting for a few minutes on one of the benches, I steadied myself for round two, which included a Veronese with Xerxes extending his scepter to Queen Esther, the round Michelangelo of the Holy Family, and several striking paintings by Titian, but a lot of these rooms were closed for renovation.

I wandered downstairs still in an exploratory mode, thinking I’d return for a review after a quick look.  By right away I noticed a section labelled (almost desultorily) “Foreign painters” and followed the signs up some stairs. There I discovered a whole wing full of some of my favorite painters: In the Spanish room there were Goya, Ribera and Velasquez. In the French rooms I discovered the Chardin shuttlecock girl and the boy playing cards. Then I stood for a while puzzling over a Boucher painting of St. John the Baptist and the Christ child. It was practically iridescent in its pink and blue elegance, but what was he thinking when he made the locust-eater and the Lion of Judah into cream-puff babies?  In the Dutch rooms I discovered several lovely Van Dyck paintings and Rubens’s lovely portrait, which I have sketched more than once, of his first wife Isabella Brandt.  There also were two Rembrandt self portraits, but I’m pretty sure only one was genuine. (By age sixty or so, Rembrandt would have known how to place his own eyes.)

By this time the coffee had kicked in and I was happy about having discovered several new paintings by Andrea del Sarto, when I was suddenly transported back to childhood by a small painting of the sacrifice of Isaac that I remembered from a book of Bible stories. I had completely forgotten about it. I knew every inch of the painting, however, remembered being horribly fascinated with how the teenage Isaac’s glassy eyes rolled heavenwards as his father prepared to slay him. But perhaps this painting was at least less frightening than Caravaggio’s much younger, blatantly terrified and screaming Isaac.  And the Caravaggio was in turn was only two paintings away from Artesemia Gentileschi’s gory Judith and the Head of Holofernes, much admired now for being proto-feminist.

After this violent interlude I found myself ending the tour with Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch.  I’d spent many hours as a child staring at this one too, so much so that when I saw a European goldfinch for the first time this year, I knew it immediately.  And as usual, the real painting looked much brighter and clearer, with purer blues.**

Upon walking back out into the street from the museum after three-and-a-half hours of looking, I reluctantly acknowledged that I couldn’t return to S. Croce after all and instead met Sarie back by S. Maria Novella, where we had a snack. After days of rain in Torino, the Tuscan skies were clear and the late afternoon sun slanted golden on the spring fields.  To cap off the day, we saw parachutists jumping out of a plane near Bologna.

It sometimes seems as though we moved to Italy only to hit the season of our lives during which it was hardest to properly enjoy being in a great vacation spot.  Friday reminded me that this wasn’t always the case.  I was very glad I had taken the opportunity to go.


*By the way, if you ever decide to reserve tickets, I recommend going directly to the Uffizzi website instead of one of the tourist ones. It’s considerably cheaper. And also, no matter how hot it is, I recommend dressing nicely in Florence.

**The reproductions I’m linking to in this post unfortunately rarely convey the original color or luminosity of oil painting, and the photo of the Raphael Madonna of the Goldfinch in particular must be even browner than the one in my old coffee table book!